Friday, March 5, 2010

Ideas about God and about the Moon

Is there a man in the moon? There is a long tradition in the West that says there is. Or is it a rabbit pounding rice (mochi)? That is the old Japanese view. Look up “man in the moon” on Wikipedia (here) and you will find a great variety of ideas about who lives in the moon. It also seems that in the past some people actually thought the moon was made of green cheese.
Of course, because of modern telescopes and then actual travel to the moon, no educated person today believes there is some person or animal living on or in the moon or that it is made out of anything other than rocks and minerals of various sorts.
But what does this have to do with God? Well, people through the millennia have had different ideas about God, just as they have had about the moon. Can we assume, though, that whereas there is some basic truth about the nature of the moon, there is no essential truth about God? Should we believe that any idea about God is as good as any other?
In his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989) by Lesslie Newbigin, about whom I wrote in two previous postings (2/1 and 2/8), the British missiologist contends that religious pluralism “is the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious beliefs as true or false is inadmissible” (p. 14).
It seems quite clear that there are different perceptions of God or Truth, but all those perceptions are not equally correct, just as most of the varying ideas about the moon were not true. But, of course, we don’t have direct information about God like we have about the moon. Or do we?
Isn’t there experience of God? If there is, it is certainly not the same as experience of physical objects, like the moon. Experience of God is beyond the realm of science. But does that make it any less real?
The Bible is full of references to hearing God speak, sensing God leading, communicating with God through prayer, and other such experiences. Is there any validity to such experience claims? Or are those claims just subjective experiences with no real contact with an “objective” Being? I think that there are people, many people, who have experienced God to varying degrees and that those experiences are real and not just subjective feelings.
One question being considered by many today, though, is this: Is it only people who are Christians or in the Christian tradition who have experienced or can experience God? Again, I think not. But that doesn’t mean that all ideas about God are equally valid or true, just as all ideas about the moon are not equally true, and most have been clearly false, even though it is the same moon that is observed.


  1. Leroy politely sidesteps the lunatics and werewolves that also populate our experience of the moon. Those out singing "Shine on Harvest Moon" might point out that our experience of God has a comparable cast of misfits in its shadows.

    Once we peel off the layers of psychology and anthropology surrounding both the moon and God, we face the critical question of whether the core of the experience of God has any analogy to the physical moon at the core of the experience of the moon. Or are the discoveries of psychology and anthropology the only standards for measuring the experience of God?

    Most religions agree that God is not an object. So the parallel to the moon is not perfect. However, the whole universe of mathematics exists without a physical foundation, and yet it is the most exact subject imaginable. So, perhaps, the experience of God is also somewhat like the experience of mathematics. Which is theology like: psychology, anthropology, or mathematics?

    The Gospel of John ends with what some have interpreted as the Pythagorean sign of the fish. Yes, hundreds of years before Jesus, the followers of the mathematician Pythagorus had a sign of the fish. It was made with two crossed arcs, just like the later Christian symbol, but with the special requirement that the center of one arc be on the line of the other arc. This made for a slightly chubby fish by modern jewelry standards, but it held a mathematical mystery. Using the power of the Pythagorean Theorem, known to students of right triangles to this very day, it can be proven that the length of the body of this "fish" is exactly the square root of three, which in modern decimals is about 1.732. Not knowing decimals, the ancient Greeks used fractions. For example, for pi they used 22/7, which matches pi out to 3.14. The fraction for the fish is 265/153, which is about 1.732. So if one Pythagorean wanted to check if another person was a Pythagorean, he could draw an arc, and see if the other completed the fish. Or, he could tell a fish story, and work in the number 265 or 153. If the other person caught on, they could trade fish stories all night! Now, what is the Gospel of John trying to tell us?

  2. Your post makes me remember something one of my seminary professors, Bill Coble, used to say about the moon and knowledge of God: we can [with the naked eye] only ever see one side of the moon, leaving the other side completely unavailable to us. And yet, he would continue, the side we know least about is the side we speculate about, and even controvert about, the most. Such it is with God, he would conclude. In the end, for Coble, the "knowledge of the moon" [even if it was post Apollo moon landings, it was still a captivating statement] was an epistemological metaphor, and that seems to be the way you are partially using it in your post.

    I would suggest that the metaphor is too limited (CHD seems to get this). Making qualitative judgments about the relative truth of varying claims about God doesn't even have the front side of the moon to look at. In the end, our assertions about God grow from traditions shared within communities, the ways those traditions shape individual experiences, and imaginative ways of making those traditions address contemporary realities. Imagination, I would underscore, plays a vital role in the theological affirmations that shape our lives. Making judgments about differing religious claims about God is like deciding who's imagination is "better." Seems an ultimately subjective enterprise, like saying I love Brahms but not Wagner.

    Paul's argument in 2 Cor 3:12-18 is that Moses [Torah] actually prevents readers from embracing Christ. The flip side of the argument is that only if one is already Christian can one see Christ in Torah: "Whenever he turns to the Lord the veil is removed," vs. 16 says. It's a frank acknowledgment of the role one's preexisting beliefs play in understanding the possible meanings of Jewish and Christian--and I would argue other--scriptures.

  3. Here is part of what one TF wrote in an e-mail in response to the posting above:

    "Your blog about the moon was timely for me as I prepare to facilitate a lesson on tomorrow's Common Lectionary passages (Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9). That old moon seems to have sparked a theology in you and it spoke to me. In essence we are all trying to discern the purpose of life, hopefully at all times, and the moon is a great reminder for us to do so. It occurred to me that our commonality is that we are all 'examiners' seeking truth, purpose and meaning. In the verses of Isaiah I find another metaphor or reminder, namely food; I’m on a diet right now so these verses are also timely. It occurs to me that the real food and fruit of life is to discern, seek and then feed on the will or truth of God, which in turn brings about more food and fruit for others from God through us. This is a good food because it offers fulfillment in that it makes an effort to line up with the purpose of life."
    "Thanks for the spiritual vitamins you provide through your blog; even if they are hard pills for me to swallow at times they certainly energize my desire to inquirer, examine and discern life’s purpose and meaning."

  4. Dr. Glenn Hinson, who regularly sends comments by e-mail, wrote,

    "A searching thought, Leroy. I like the way you leave room for the God of this vast universe to have generated enough light to illuminate more than Christians. Douglas Steere propounded an idea that I like very much. He called it 'Mutual Irradiation.' We let the light of God in us irradiate others, and we let the light of God in them irradiate us. The Christian mystics in the Apophatic tradition remind us that God is far beyond our human capacity to understand. In humility we use the 'via negativa' as a way of reminding ourselves how little we can say about God. Better to stand in awe!"